**spoiler alert** I have a theory that somewhere in this world there exists a list entitled "Books and Authors that People Who Have Pretensions of Lit**spoiler alert** I have a theory that somewhere in this world there exists a list entitled "Books and Authors that People Who Have Pretensions of Literary Knowledge Should Probably Read." What? What's that you say? It's called "The Literary Canon," and very intelligent people have been arguing about whether it should exist at all, and if it should, what should be included in it for quite some while now? Ah. I feel foolish. That being as it may, I occasionally take a look at my reading patterns and my list of "Important Books I've Read," and I notice some thin places - authors and books I've heard about for years but have never managed to make the time to read.
So, on a recent trip to the library, I checked out Lady Chatterley. I remember liking Lawrence quite a bit when we had to read "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" and "The Odor of Chrysanthemums" back in my second British Lit survey class, but I'd never read any of his novels. He has a startlingly bleak, but at the same time strangely liberating view of human relationships, and I'd heard that Lady Chatterley was, for its day, quite frank in its discussion of sexuality. This, coupled with the fact that it had been banned in its unexpurgated form in many places, made me curious.
Though it was just a little bit shocking to be reading (quite nicely written) sex scenes in the midst of a "classic" work of literature, the sex in and of itself was not mind-blowing. However, the commentary on the division of sexuality and rationality was fascinating. It seems to me that the point of the book is Constance Chatterley's realization that sexuality is not simply a base, animal need that can be divorced completely from the rational "life of the mind," as her circle of intellectuals calls it. Her affair with Mellors, and his unabashed, thoroughly sensual and unapologetically masculine sexuality awakens her to the possibility of sexual/emotional fulfillment through human contact.
The constant insistence that it was penetration that allowed this to happen for Connie is where I started having problems. At first, I tried to read it as one possible expression of sexual fulfillment, and that Mellors fulfilled her because he was secure in who he was, but it soon became very clear to me that it was only because Mellors was a real man, a manly man with a manly man's penis and the will to use it, that he was capable of making Connie come at the same time as he does(which, in the book, is coded as the ultimate expression of intimacy, trust, and sexual enlightenment. Don't get me started.). There was also a section where Mellors rants about women who expect to get their own pleasure after the man has had his, calling them lesbians (because they couldn't come with his fantastic penis inside them?) and speaking about them in the most derogatory terms possible. This left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth.
I also find viewing Connie and Mellors as mature, complete models of sexual expression to be problematic . Even at the end of the book, when Connie has left her husband, she is still naive and immature and flighty. Of course, it could also be argued that they weren't meant to viewed as models. Everyone in the book is somehow warped by the war, by industrialization, by shifting notions of class and wealth. Clifford, Connie's husband, may be the only one who is literally broken and impotent, left in a wheel chair by injuries sustained during the war, but every single other character is in some way unable to express his or her sexuality completely and freely. Even Connie and Mellors are bound by the need for divorces from their respective spouses, and Connie still certainly shows signs of caring what other people think about her as the affair goes on.
Besides the relationships in this book, class and industrialization were major concerns. Though I believe I must have known this beforehand, I had never really thought about how important accents are as a marker of class. Mellors' ability to speak either in the accent of the mining town where he grew up, or in more "correct" standard English, and his choice to use one or the other, was fascinating.
Also, the Chatterley family estate is connected to a coal-miners village in the middle of England. There are long sections devoted to the encroachments of the coal pits on the landscape. At one point, Connie sadly thinks of it as a new England replacing an older one. But this older England, represented by Sir Clifford and Wragby, the family estate, is not romanticized. Instead, it is stifling, cold, and dying. A very depressing reading of the book could very easily conclude that one old, stultifying way of life was being replaced by another that may be less contrived, less prudish, but equally devoid of real life and real fulfillment. Bucking the system is difficult and can only be done at great personal cost, and even then, the outcome is unsatisfying.
In short, I am unsettled, but ultimately glad I read it....more